Robin Clifford'And though he be but little, he is fierce." ( Jockey Red Pollard paraphrasing Shakespeare)
Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) was always interested in locomotion, moving from New York City to San Francisco to open a bicycle shop in the early 1900s. A fortuitous breakdown of a Stanley Steamer in front of his store got the man interested in the automobile and he made a fortune selling the vehicles before tragedy struck on both wide and personal scales - the stock market crash and the death of his son. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper, "Adaptation") was an aging cowboy with an almost spiritual sense for horses at a time when the horse was becoming overshadowed by the machine. Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire, "Spiderman") knew how to ride a horse, but was struggling to put together an existence at second rate racetracks and boxing rings. These three men would all converge to be redeemed by a horse everyone else had already given up on - "Seabiscuit.
Laura Hillenbrand's non-fiction bestseller about the underdog racehorse that engrossed our country seventy years ago came along at another time of economic bleakness when formerly ordinary Joes like firemen are declared heroes. Director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville") does a great job plunking us into the middle of a horse race, but his adaptation of the novel is so heavily weighted setting up the misfortunes of his three main characters that the Seabiscuit years are given short shrift. Furthermore, that initial hour is woefully unbalanced, the three stories braided together like a lumpy, lopsided horsetail. Still, the horse races are heart-pumpingly exciting and the production a handsome one.
After Howard's young son dies in an ironic driving accident, and his wife is (rather inexplicably - a breakdown is hinted at in a movie that hints at a lot of things) taken away, his buddies take him to Tijuana for some cheering up. He meets Marcela Zabala (Elizabeth Banks, "Catch Me If You Can's" bank teller), a beautiful 'one of the boys' kind of woman half his age, at the Agua Caliente racetrack. Love blooms as does the yen for horse ownership. Informed that first he should find a trainer, Charles's eye is drawn to a strange man, whom we've seen in a couple of previously intercut scenes roping wild horses and calming a spooked circus horse, tending a horse out in the brush. Charles is impressed with Tom's rationale for rehabilitating a ruined animal ('You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little.') and hires him.
Meanwhile, we've witnessed a boy from a large family with a healthy respect for literature get left with a stable owner by bankrupt parents who promise to call but don't. Years later John 'Red' Pollard has a less kindly boss who pays him less than he charges for his keep, forcing the kid to enter the boxing ring to make up the shortfall. (It's hinted at that one of these fights is responsible for the loss of sight in one eye although the injury actually occurred during a horse race and Pollard never disclosed it as he does in the film.)
Tom catches the eye of Seabiscuit, a horse reduced to running low claims stake races, across a misty track and his breath is taken away (this emotionally powerful, visually intriguing scene is weakened by unnecessary narration). Later, at Saratoga, as Tom watches stable hands trying to restrain the Howards' new racehorse with one eye, he spies a feisty jockey, Red, engaged in fisticuffs with the other and pairs the two spirited misfits up. Red realizes the horse's potential too and soon the horse is beating track records, but Charles Howard will not stop until his scrappy Western underdog is given a shot at Eastern triple-crown winner, War Admiral.
Ross has put a lot of effort into capturing the horse races from the inside (adrenaline, danger) and out (suspense) and it's all on the screen. Horse wrangler Rusty Hendrickson ("The Horse Whisperer") put together a stable that needed to be trained to recreate details of historical races under conditions that would normally spook a horse (camera mounts, etc.). Race designer Chris McCarron, a retired Hall of Fame jockey who also plays War Admiral's mount Charley Kurtsinger, hired the professional jockeys and plotted the course. Director of Photography John Schwartzman ("Pearl Harbor," "The Rookie") covers the events dynamically, with conversations between riding jockeys accomplished with redesigned equicizers (mechanical devices used to train the riders). Thundering hooves, thousands of extras and Production Designer Jeannine Oppewall's ("Pleasantville") track recreations complete the spectacle.
Yet "Seabiscuit" is lacking outside of the track. Jeff Bridges, a great and undervalued American actor, has played a period automobile magnate before and it shows. Announcing to a crowd at a whistle stop 'Our horse is too small, our jockey's too big, our trainer's too old and I'm too dumb to know the difference,' he radiates good-hearted showmanship, but he can't sell us Charles Howard over his own image. Maguire, who persevered over great physical hardship with extreme weight loss and training, is encumbered by the PG-13 rating and his own wide-eyed boyishness in giving us the Pollard Hillenbrand has made so familiar. Of the three stars only Cooper disappears into the skin of his horse whisperer. Whether caring for a horse of playing mischievous games with the press, his every gesture feels authentic.
Supporting players fare better. Banking on Banks was a good investment as the actress delivers a perfect mix of gutsiness and period femininity. In a role written for him, William H. Macy ("Pleasantville") has a blast as colorful Santa Anita announcer Tick-Tock McGlaughlin, streaming out overblown announcements accompanied by a plethora of self-supplied sound effects. Another Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, is a natural as Pollard's rival and friend George "The Iceman" Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit when Pollard suffered a horrible injury. Eddie Jones ("Return To Me") gives a memorable turn as the arrogant and conniving East Coast businessman who owns War Admiral.
Ross's adaptation, while highlighting the men around Seabiscuit, also glosses over such details as Pollard's salty language, alcoholism and marriage and the trials Howard and Smith endured with handicapping and ridiculously bad luck with weather conditions. Scripting metaphors are often obvious (Howard turning Smith's words around on him when Pollard admits his blindness) are even groan-inducing (Pollard equates a woman beating a rug with a jockey's whip). His choice of dropping in montages of black and white depression stills for historical background unfortunately recalls the opening credits of "Cheers" and narration (by historian and "John Adams" author David McCullough) is overutilized.
Even with its handicaps, though, "Seabiscuit" is an uplifting ride that concludes with the joyous comeback of two heroes displaying more heart than either of their unsuited bodies should have been able to hold.
"You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little." - Charles Howard, owner of Seabiscuit
In the 1930's three men, all lost souls to one degree or another, and a horse that nobody wanted made history and changed the way the world treats the underdog when they took the American horseracing world by storm. Helmer Gary Ross tells the story of this unlikely quartet of winners in the inspirational story about the making of an equine athlete in "Seabiscuit."
Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) is a self-made millionaire who migrated to San Francisco early in the 20th century with only 21 cents in his pocket. He opened a bicycle repair shop and eked out an existence until a fortuitous event - the owner of a broken down Stanley Steamer asks him to fix his car. Fascinated with this new technology Howard took on the job and saw the future the automobile would have on America. He soon became the sole distributor for Buick in the western U.S. and a very wealthy man, too. Tragedy befalls Charles when his young son is killed in a car accident and his grieving wife leaves him. Howard tries to run away from his own grief and goes Mexico where he becomes enamored with that sport of kings, horseracing.
Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is a taciturn throwback to a previous era when the horse, not the car, was the transport of choice. The world that he knew and loved so well is fast receding over the horizon and, with it, the only life he had ever known. Fortunately, the old cowboy has an almost mystical way with horses and, when he comes to the attention of Charles Howard, he gets a second chance at life. This original horse whisperer knows quality equine flesh when he sees it and the millionaire knows it when he sees such a man.
Johnny "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire) came from a loving Irish immigrant home where song and reading was a mainstay. But, the Depression hit most Americans hard and the Pollards were no exception. Red is a natural horseman and his father, destitute and desperate, cuts his son loose to make his own way as a jockey. Young Johnny makes a living of sorts riding at broken down tracks and boxing. All alone in the world he wanders aimlessly, getting into trouble, fights and booze until he comes to the attention of Tom Smith who recognizes the young jockey's talent and determination.
This unlikely trio needed one more thing to make the combo click. This missing element turned up in the unlikely locale of Boston's Suffolk Downs racetrack where Tom spots a beaten up, awkward bay by the name of Seabiscuit. When he looks into the horse's eyes he sees the inner spirit of a champion. The puzzle finally has all of its pieces and the nobly born but small, knobby-kneed 'Biscuit starts to shake his past abuses and begins to win races, lots of races, and breaking records, too. This begins a national phenomenon that gripped the hearts and minds of the America people with its Horatio Alger tale of the down-trodden underdog - in this case Seabiscuit and Red, in particular, but also Charles and Tom - that overcomes every obstacle to achieve the ultimate kudos of their sport.
The screenplay by Gary Ross is adapted from the popular non-fiction book, Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, and attempts to do many things - sometimes successfully, sometimes not so. A lot of time, about an hour, is spent on the build up to the day the star athlete is born. Much of this time is filled with voice over narration, by David McCullough, telling the history of the times, showing the plight of the nation as the false prosperity of the Roaring 20's came to a crashing halt on October 29, 1929 and The Great Depression gripped the country and the world. Interspersed with the history lesson are faux newsreels and radio commentary describing the rise of the most unlikely American hero, Seabiscuit.
Of the principal cast Chris Cooper does the most masterful job creating the character that IS Tom Smith. I lost myself in his depiction of a man of the Old West who maintains his integrity to his craft and love for his horses. Cooper uses stern expressions, the clipped speech of a man not used to talking much and body language that indicates a high comfort level with his beloved beasts, especially the 'Biscuit. I hope his performance is remembered come year's end.
Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire are okay in their respective roles of Charles and Red. Bridges is, basically, reprising his "Tucker" performance, 'though older and heavier, with much the same spin as his earlier performance. (The actor, as he gets older, looks more and more like his brother Beau.) Maguire does a yeoman's job as Red but I kept wondering, while watching "Seabiscuit," if another casting choice would have been better.
Supporting cast has some gems. Elizabeth Banks, as Howard's beautiful young wife, Marcela, is very assured in her characterization of a young woman attracted to an older man. Marcela is a kindred spirit, not a trophy wife, and helps gentle the grief that Charles feels for his lost son. Hall of Fame Jockey Gary Stevens makes his acting debut as George "The Iceman" Woolf, a top jockey at the time who was Red's mentor and friend. Stevens, with his movie star good looks and confident demeanor, is a natural in front of the camera and a pleasure to watch. William H. Macy, as the fast-talking, funny radio announcer Tick-Tock McGlaughlin, steals the show with his rapid-fire patter and sound effects sent over the airways to the millions of fans of Seabiscuit. Noted historian David McCullough gives a dignified voiceover performance as the film's narrator.
Gary Ross takes liberty with his source material and this is where "Seabiscuit" falters. Too much time is spent on the set up that brings all the players together making the body of the real story - the rise of Seabiscuit to the status of national icon - seem abbreviated. Facts are manipulated for the sake of dramatic development that may garner adverse reaction of the millions who have read the book - the "that's not how it happened" backlash. The uninitiated, though, will get an interestingly handled lecture on America during The Depression as well as an entertaining, inspirational sports story.
Techs are terrific across the board. John Schwartzman's expert camera work makes the racing sequences some of the most exciting I have ever seen. Costume designer Judianna Makovsky has an excellent eye for the period and dresses her wards befitting the time. Randy Newman's score suits the tone of the film. Production design by Jeannine Oppewall credibly captures the look and feel of the racing environment of the 30's.
"Seabiscuit" isn't the unabashed masterpiece that I had hoped for but it is an exciting, well-crafted sports drama about an unlikely athlete. I give it a B+.
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